Friday, July 21, 2006

With Rulfo from Rodier

It appears that though things are logistically complex I may just be able to get my photos back. This makes me very happy.

Many years ago in a hostel in deepest darkest Montmartre I got chatting with a group of Mexicans out to discover the delights of Paris. Asking them what Mexican literature they could recommend I was greeted with a chorus of 'Juan Rulfo' (amongst others who I shall continue to track down - Octavio Paz was another who's poetry I bought and loved). Yesterday, having found the book in a second hand shop, I sat down in a cafe with an ice coffee and a fine piece of cheese cake to read half the canon of one of the most renowned Spanish language writers.

A strange tale, Juan Rulfo wrote only two pieces of fiction, Pedro Paramo, which I read in the cafe, and The Burning Plane. With these two short works, his name in Spanish language literature is often lauded alongside the likes of Borges and is said to have influenced many including Marquez. It may be through more vicarious means but I can see parts of his writing in some of the mid 20th century American authors too, whose style is often simplistic and powerful.

This book is a strange weave of past and present, living and dead, that the Mexicans seem to write about so well. Starting off with the journey of a man to find his father, the story blends several timeframes into an almost continuous narrative which at times is confusing but always infused with the same dry, desolation, revealing the dead town's past and downfall.

The book has apparently been filmed several times, and twice the script was written by Marquez. Sounds like a fantastic combination which I'll be on the lookout for. It definitely reads like something Gilliam should be involved with.

I'd be interested to hear anyone who has read the Spanish and English versions of this to tell me how much I'm missing. The answer may be a lot but the language itself is actually very simple in the translation, I believe this is deliberate.


Now, coming up to Friday evening, it's a lovely chance to spend it with my family again after so long away. I don't count myself as very religious at all but I do value the particular aspects of family and community that Judaism brings with it.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Not how it's supposed to be!

Yesterday I spent a little time writing a terribly witty post about my return to England, my reacquaintance with much loved food (thick granary with jam), the fine weather, plus a few things that I'd wanted to mention about China (erudite remarks on language and overweight people)...and then it all went horribly wrong. My laptop crashed. It's been doing that a little recently so I was planning a full backup any day now. I lost the blog post and we're all a little worse off for that, but then it just wouldn't start again, at all. I could regale you with the tales of the eight hours I spent yesterday trying to salvage any data I could from the corrupt hard drive but it would be pretty tedious. The only positive thing is that I did manage to get the paper that I've been writing recently along with all the mathematica files off before the whole thing completely stopped working.

I've lost nine months worth of photos from China. This makes me very sad.

Clearly I should have backed it all up, OK, that was pretty short-sighted, and indeed I did backup some things regularly. I don't care about losing the 6000 songs I'd religiously copied from my CDs onto my computer (which took a long, long time). I don't care about losing all the carefully tuned programs that have taken me such a long time to balance just right. I do care about losing the 1000 or so photos which have chronicled my time in China. This makes me very sad.

I have a warranty which means that ACER will, I hope, replace all damaged components of the computer though they will almost certainly not try and recover my data. Going to a data recovery company would cost me several thousand pounds and almost certainly invalidate my warranty.

Anyway, I shall go and weep a little over my backup DVDs which don't seem to respond when put in any other computer. Suddenly the fact that I have many photos (in minimised format) on this blog is significantly more valuable.

Anyway, I shall repeat my post which started this whole thing off at some time when I'm a little less stressed.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

End of Part One

I realise more and more how in need I am of this trip back home. Almost nine months out here and the combination of heat, numbers of human beings and a couple of non-stop months means that going home is definitely what I require. A slew of things are already lined up for my return, including going back to my old department to chat with people there. Seeing friends and family is of course high on the list of priorities and I'm not sure how much time I'm actually going to have to sit back at home and relax.

So, I'm packed-ish though I'll spend the next day and a bit realising that I really need another two suitcases to take two weeks worth of things back. Yesterday I spent souvenir hunting through the bustling street markets around Qianmen and picked up a couple of bargains. On route I had lunch in my first ever North Korean restaurant where I was faced with quite a shock and a strange insight into my own reactions. I'm well aware that if I ever eat dog that one of my friends will never speak to me again. I thought that this was the only reason that I wouldn't eat it, however yesterday I was taught a surprising lesson. As I was tucking into my bowl of noodles I picked up a piece of meet and asked what it was as it looked a little different from regular beef. Looking a little sheepish my friend replied that it was dog. Immediately my heart sped up, my stomach tightened and images of both my friend and golden retrievers etc. rushed through my mind. I think that my regular meals consisting of stomach, foot, lung etc. of donkey, frog, snail etc. precludes me from the squeamish category so I was rather surprised by my reaction. Dolefully I asked if it was really dog, really really dog to which the answer was yes, until it became apparent that I was genuinely upset by this at which point the bovine truth was revealed, with much laughter from all but myself. I didn't finish the noodles and I shan't be trying dog any time soon.

So, Andrew, my friend from Southampton, somehow made it all around China through the backwaters with just two words of Chinese to his name and seemed to have a pretty good time. I've mentioned this before but it's always interesting to hear the perspectives of China through the eyes of a newcomer who spots things that I've either forgotten or always been oblivious to. Andrew has also been to India and mentioned that the tastiness of the street food in China couldn't compare to that in India which I have to agree with. Though the Chinese cuisine is truly one of the world's greatest, the street fare doesn't tend to be that spectacular. This may be because the difference between the Chinese food here and back home is far greater than the difference between Indian food in India and back home so many of the tastes are a little strange to us. The semi-sitting down food (that eaten sitting in outside food gardens) is a lot better, with a huge range of flavours and combinations which can see you through an evening very enjoyably. The food actually served by the side of the road however often seems less imaginative.

Andrew made a bit of a habit of being ripped off, though this isn't his fault. With his permission I can reveal one of the truly greatest scams I've heard about while I've been here. While walking around one of the towns he visited he was accosted by a couple of 'English students' out to practice the spoken word. This is an oft practiced ploy and has got me off the beaten path a couple of times. You feel kind of mean telling them you don't want to until you realise that most of the time they eventually want to get you into their gallery or tea shop, as follows. Andrew was told that he really should try some Chinese tea and see the ceremony, true enough. He was taken to a tea house where the menu was flashed in front of him showing some high (38 kuai, two point fifty) but not unreasonable prices. He was then given a few samples of different teas, each time the tea being prepared in the same ornate fashion with much pouring, swashing and deliberate spilling followed by an elaborate method of smelling and tasting the product through all stages of brewing. After these tasters Andrew was advised to buy a particular tea. Thinking this was what the 38 kuai went towards he agreed, having tasted some fine brews. Seeing as you can get a cup of tea in a restaurant for 5 kuai with free refills, the bill arriving on his lap for a little over 2000 kuai came as a bit of a shock. In fact the 38 kuai was per taste of each tea and he'd gone full throttle trying every one. 2000 kuai is a over 100 quid and, being far more than was in his wallet, was not up for the taking. With some fine British reserve he declared the whole thing a scam and gave them everything that was in his wallet (around 200 kuai). After a while they seemed to agree that perhaps this was more reasonable so let him go, all limbs intact. Be warned!

Tatsuya and I have finished working together here and have accomplished a great deal in the last two weeks. By spending all day calculating, conjecturing and bouncing ideas off each other, we've done half the work for a joint paper which we will put together with a friend in Poland in the coming weeks. It wasn't all work however as, when Andrew returned from his travels we went to a local club which it turned out was Tatsuya's first. He seemed to rather enjoy the slightly strange experience, being surrounded by a truly international selection of drunkards in deepest, darkest Beijing.

Now, with one day left in the office I have a few things to finish off before lugging all my stuff back home to see if culture shock (no pun intended) will greet me on the other side of the journey.

Monday, July 10, 2006

...and relax

I should mention that in this post is an image which may be unpleasant to vegetarians.
I'd assured myself that football would not enter this blog again though today is going to be a minor exception. Last night was spent in one of the local French hang-outs watching the final and, getting back at around 5.30 this morning I remained convinced that I'm never going to get very excited about the game. The situation (give or take the country of allegiance) should have made a perfect atmosphere and indeed as the rain created rivers in the streets outside, the thunder rattled once more and the bar was packed close to bursting, there was much cheering from both the Italians and French in the room who seemed to be taking the rivalry in very friendly fashion. As 2 fast approached, we watched on the big screen as the room filled with several times more people than the regulations allowed. Just before 2 the police showed up, the TV was turned off and hackles were raised in what looked like a messy end to some fine upstanding police officers. Realising that they were outnumbered by about 200 to 1, they tactfully let the party go ahead and so, as I stood up for the next three hours watching the game, the room became filled with cheer and song, Italians swearing in French and vice versa.

I shan't mention the score, that would be going too far. A fun night but today I'm a little weary. Indeed had it just been one late night I may be feeling fine but the night before finished at 6 in the morning and was an absolutely perfect, if brief respite from the non-stop work which has been taking up all resources for the last two months.

The night before was Beijing's summer jam, though it was perhaps more coulis than compote as, at two in the morning the heavens opened once more and we became a soggy, if joyful bunch of dancers and frolickers.

Set an hour outside Beijing city in a countryside resort, usually set aside for such peaceful pursuits as tennis and fishing a la Centre Parcs, for one night only it was taken over by two music stages, several thousand revellers and a pool for those drunk enough not to mind the cold which has been with us for the last few days.

Well, there were some sights and some sounds, some peacockery and some casualties, many of which I shall spare your innocent eyes. However, I got a few pictures through the night to give a rough idea of what was a fantastic time of dancing, drinking and chatting with friends.

We arrived around 3 in the afternoon to a the sounds of smells of a humid forest setting and for the first time in far too long I sat and did nothing for a couple of hours. My friend Xavier sitting contemplating.

This guy was clearly a fan of Kundera and I had to take a photo of his tattoo. The translation is 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'

This was either a fine example of Chinglish or a very clever existential joke:

Food at this event was provided straight from the vine:

The hiphop stage and the pool:

Clearly an event like this is not complete without an old plane for partygoers to clamber around:

It's with mixed feelings that I admit that at one stage in the night I won an umbrella which, when the rains came, though my feet trudged through the streams, the rest of me remained relatively dry. Mother would be proud of her son, walking around being relatively sensible. The dichotomy lies in the fact that said umbrella was won in a beer drinking contest (speed not quantity I may add) and so perhaps any browny points I may have won through having an umbrella are instantly cancelled. This wasn't a planned event on my part, we happened to be walking past a tent advertising hair products, wondered in because we could see that there was something going on and a minute later we were surrounded by a group of onlookers watching us act like imbeciles. Fun nonetheless.

Here are some random snaps of partying people:

Anyway, five or so hours of dancing did much to refresh my mind and get the blood pumping again. Arriving home at six in the morning, saturated clothes were peeled and sleep descended quickly. At midday a knock at the door signaled that any chance of rest was over and so we headed to the local karaoke bar where I again managed to remove any merit a fair number of fine tunes may have possessed. Tatsuya, who's currently here working with me faired much better and gave many a fine rendition of some of the Japanese songs on the database.

Walking back we stopped off at a great Szechuan outdoor eatery where the Szechuan equivalent of kebabs were gobbled down by the hungry singers.

As we walked back we passed these kids playing around the local lanes (soon to be filled with tower blocks). Clearly to have your personal rickshaw driver is the height of luxury here.

and so we come full circle, after a couple of hours rest we headed off to the football and so the story begins, and ends.

Now, back at work I have an English lesson to plan and want to start writing up the work that we've been doing the last week. It's been one of the most intense but productive weeks for a long time and we've got some lovely results to study in more detail. More later...

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Ongoing Goings On

Measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale it seems that little damage was done to anyone or anything during the recent tremor. Apparently a woman in hospital 'felt a bit dizzy'. I'm thinking this isn't a great control test in terms of the affects of small earthquakes on the body.

Young and old practice their circus skills in the campus grounds:

Though my eyes are almost failing to stay open at the moment I'm doing the most enjoyable work that I've done for a long time. My particular style of working means that I'm surrounded by scraps of paper dotted with scribbled diagrams and equations and a large computer program on the screen in front of me. Half the time is currently being spent chatting through each stage with my collaborator, drawing possible interpretations of what's going on on the board in my office (from which I'm soon to be evicted). If I were a more sensible and efficient worker I would have a neat notepad in which the careful flows of thought were immaculately inscribed. However, my mind jumps from one thing to another and any notepad I've started has ended up being left behind.

If things work out, which they never do in my brief experience, this work may go some considerable way towards a rather interesting paper.

Unfortunately the last month's packed timetable has left no time for Chinese lessons. I'm hoping that the ten hour flight back to the UK may be a suitable gap in normal affairs in which to go through all the Chinese characters I've learnt and subsequently buried in the quagmire.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Rambling Rumblings

What I presumed to be a professor rattling his blackboard making it sound remarkably like an earthquake turned out to be an earthquake sounding just like a professor rattling his board. It was only when we arrived downstairs to see an excitable looking group of admin staff that I realised that today wasn't a particularly bad day for professors to find mistakes in their factors of two but really was one of Beijing's occasional earthquakes. My Japanese friend thought that the earthquake was an earthquake and carried on to lunch. Lunch was OK, the fish balls were a little shaken.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Itinerant Musings

Book shopping back in England is one of my favourite weekend pursuits, second only to sitting in the cafe in the bookshop and perusing my latest purchases. Shopping for books in China is a somewhat different animal. It's a long term pursuit and it seems that people spend a serious amount of time deciding which books to buy. This can often mean reading a large percentage of the books to hand and can take several hours. Most of my friends here claim that they don't read very much and don't enjoy books but if you press them they've usually read a large tract of Eastern and Western literature (in translation). Many books are downloaded from the internet so spending money on them needs a serious decision. Here's a snap of some weekend readers deciding what to spend their hard earned kuai on. This particular bookshop is five stories high and each level is perhaps 30 by 50 meters.

I currently have some temporary company in the flat. My first and last two couch surfers (not their fault that they are my last) are currently here in Beijing, one month into their five month journey around the world. The idea of couch surfing is a simple one. People who have a spare couch, like meeting new people and like to travel, sign their name up to a website. If you are then travelling to, for instance, Beijing, you look to see if there are any couch surfers in Beijing with a spare bit of floor/couch/bed and get in contact through the website. It simply means that given a large enough network of like-minded people you can stay anywhere in the world for free. So, I now have two American Peace-Corps volunteers staying here while they see Beijing before heading over to Germany to see that final of the world cup.

The reason that these are my last two surfers is because the computers hosting the website crashed a couple of weeks ago and everything was lost. Unfortunately this was at a critical moment between backups and it's really lost lost. This is pretty heartbreaking for the person who's spent the last three years of the their life setting this up and getting many tens of thousands of people on board. I'm sure that someone else will do it again as, for travellers, this is an amazing opportunity.

Apart from itinerant Americans I am spending time with my Japanese collaborator and attempting to follow up some fun ideas we've had with regards to the AdS/CFT correspondence. They are some potentially exciting projects but, as always it's difficult to tell whether they'll come to anything in the end. Fingers crossed.